3rd District School Board Race Opinion

Disclaimer: This post is entirely opinion where I provide insight on some of the things I considered when evaluating my choice in the 3rd district school board race. At the bottom of this post, you will find a list of links offering alternative opinions, candidate interviews, and candidate questionnaires to assist in your own evaluation of candidates. 


On Tuesday November 7th we will go to the polls to cast our vote for a number of elected officials. For the 2nd year in a row, some of us will have the joy of voting for a school board representative. In the interest of full disclosure let me start with some context. I do not have kids. I am a millennial homeowner in the 3rd District. I grew up and went to Chesterfield County Public Schools. I believe that for the city (and more generally, our country) to succeed we need everyone to have equal access to high quality education. I also believe that we need to all be involved in issues before they directly impact us. So, based on that premise, I ran for school board last year against Jeff Bourne.

This year, I looked at the available options and decided Kenya Gibson would get my vote on November 7th. Before I share my perspective, it may be of note that I have an inherit distrust of government and politics. The Democrat political machine runs strong in Richmond and whether you want to believe it or not, money does talk. My position is that we should question the status quo and connections of all our lawmakers. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck... it probably isn't a dog. This is not to say money and political parties are all bad but we should go into the voter booth with eyes wide open and know what is truly at stake when we choose which candidate has earned our vote. 


POLICIES AND CONTEXT

This post is not going to focus a whole lot of time/attention on the specific policies and plans of each candidate. While I believe this is the number one most important thing in selecting a candidate, I think we also have to be realistic with the position and powers of school board. Many of the candidate opinions/policies/goals are great ideas; however, they do not have the ability to directly address or implement the ideas without the support of other elected officials. My personal candidate selection process includes a handful of non-negotiable policy opinions (e.g. position on charters); however, I also look at the role of the position and what the individual brings to the table. 

In the case of Richmond City School Board candidates, I am concerned about preserving the school board power/independence, listening to teachers and the community, and transparency. This is the lens I examined the 3rd District candidates through when making my personal selection.


WHY NOT: Cindy Menz-Erb

Cindy has a wealth of experience in the non-profit education field working in at-risk school districts. That said, in my opinion, she is business as usual and jumped into the deep end of the democrat machine pool. I have some basic distrust of the political ties, but that distrust is compounded by what appear to be evolving statements. It is true that everyone evolves; however, the evolution over the course of a short campaign makes me suspicious that she is either being coached and is susceptible to outside influence, or she started her campaign before she truly understood what Richmond needed. In the case of the latter, I appreciate when politicians admit they were wrong; however, it has been a slow unaddressed evolution that makes me suspicious. I think Cindy's experience is something that could be a huge asset to the students of Richmond. That said, I do not think the benefit of her experience can only be felt through a position on the School Board. I think there are non-profits and programs and positions where her experience would be a natural fit. 

 

A NEWCOMER WITH DEEP DEM. TIES

A lot of my concerns with Cindy are that some things do not sit well with me as a voter. Let's all pause and remember that the School Board bylaws state that school board elections are non-partisan. All candidates run on the ballot as independent. School board is supposed to be non-partisan so schools do not become the subject of party politics. This is not just an issue in RVA but in other localities and states as well. The local Richmond City Democrat Committee did not endorse a candidate in this race; however, a number of individuals with deep ties in the Democrat party jumped on board the Cindy Menz-Erb train. Individuals can support candidates along party lines all day long; however, I have an issue when current local elected officials jump in the fray of other local races. For example, I have heard rumors that 1st District School Board Member Liz Doerr has gone canvassing for Cindy in the 3rd district. It doesn't surprise me that Liz Doerr is campaigning for a candidate based on her background with the Democrat Party; however, I do not agree with her decision to campaign for a candidate for a board she currently is elected to. It sends a strange message to have someone who people of the 1st district elected to represent them come into the 3rd district to advocate for a candidate. And it isn't just any candidate, it is a candidate who was chosen by appointment which means the board voted to select them as a representative of the 3rd district. Yes, it seems they have a good working relationship since Cindy and Liz worked together on the information gathering group about facilities that lead to the George Mason discussion. Yes, it is a good thing when politicians work together. Yes, elected officials stump for candidates all the time. BUT... I don't appreciate the perception of influence that comes from an elected official campaigning in a race for a seat in another district of the board they are on. 

 

MIKE DOERR AND ASCEND PAC

Mike Doerr is the president of a political and non-profit consulting firm called Bowie Consulting. Mike is also the Director of Mayor Stoney's One Richmond PAC, on the Virginia Advisory Board of the Ascend PAC, and is helping Cindy Menz-Erb with her campaign. Cindy was endorsed by both Mayor Stoney and the Ascend PAC. Ascend PAC lists their mission as "identifying and providing financial support to emerging Democratic candidates running for local office." Through 10/26, Cindy's campaign received $2,000 from Ascend PAC and $1,000 from One Richmond PAC. This is another example of partisan politics in a non-partisan race. 

 

LEVAR STONEY

A large part of Stoney's campaign was his his education platform where he acknowledged the mayor does not have executive control over the schools; however, he outlined solutions to help address RPS challenges.  Despite this acknowledgement, the education compact initially read more like a coup than a collaborative effort. In addition, there is a school funding referendum  on the ballot in November calling for Mayor Stoney to identify a funding source without raising taxes/fees or call it impossible. The referendum seems to be a political play attempting to force Stoney to make a statement on his ability to fix schools for some unknown benefit. Menz-Erb has voiced at forums that she is not in favor of the referendum. Stoney recently criticized the board for their lack of action on facilities by the October 16th deadline. 

So when people were just recently concerned about the independence of the locally elected school board, I do not agree with Mayor Stoney's decision to endorse a candidate for school board. Especially not a candidate who was appointed, not elected, by the constituents. To me, this feels like more party politics in what is supposed to be a non-partisan office.

 

DONATIONS

One opinion piece points toward Cindy's support of corporate interests. In reviewing her campaign donors, there is another layer I want to put out there of where half of her campaign donations came from. First of all, I went through her campaign reports to see how many donors live in the 3rd District. Of the over $100 donations that list people's addresses, I was able to identify one that listed an address in the 3rd district. The remainder of Richmond addresses were scattered around the city. During the October Reporting period, Cindy's committee received $8,400 of campaign contributions. $1,000 was from Ascend PAC, $1,000 was from One Richmond (Stoney's PAC), and one from Gilmer Minor III for $2,500. So... 53.5% of her campaign donations in October came from three sources. Throughout her campaign, she has fundraised $10,350. Since Ascend PAC made two $1,000 donations, these three sources donated 53.1% of her total campaign funds. 

This is kind of a side note but I was curious who would donate $2,500 to a local school board campaign. Gilmer Minor's contribution was made on 10/13, a couple of weeks after co-writing an opinion piece in RTD about the Virginia Business Higher Education Council's 100-day campaign called GROWTH4VA. 

 

EVOLUTION OF STATEMENTS

I have been at several of the forums and read the candidate questionnaires. While no candidate recited the same answers every time, Cindy's answers seemed to slightly evolve. For example, the first few times I heard Cindy speak or read her position, she used language about how charters were not a "binary" choice. Over time, the term "binary" dropped from her pitch and added more anti-charter language with qualifiers such as "for Richmond" and "right now." Eventually she posted on Facebook claiming her campaign has been clear from the beginning about a "full stop" on charters. Honestly, it wasn't clear to me from the beginning. Another question frequently asked of candidates has several variations so it is possible they produce different answers, but in some cases it was radically different. 

My problem with this is I am not sure exactly what Cindy believes. Her answers often seem to play within lines of semantics and, in my opinion based on observation, she does not like to be put in situations of a direct yes or no answer. When pressed in a couple of questions at the RCV Forum for a yes or no, she seemed flustered and frustrated. I am not sure if it was because she felt she had already answered the question or if she wasn't happy she had to go off-script.

Disclaimer: I am sure I have missed other questionnaires and forums. This was not done intentionally to exclude other statements but these were the ones I could link to. I also used some of the tweets I sent out during the forums as links so those are paraphrasing what the candidates said. 

 

TEACHER AND COMMUNITY ADVOCACY

In one of the forums, I heard for the first time that Cindy has a teacher advisory group of individuals in and outside of the 3rd district AND she holds monthly office hours. I am not personally impressed at these things when I haven't seen them well-advertised around the district. While I do not have kids, I am fairly plugged in with local politics so I figured I would have heard about my own representative hosting office hours. As it turns out, the information went home with kids in their backpacks (below). 

The office hours are twice a month from 8:30AM-10:30AM at Stir Crazy Cafe and Nomad Deli. I appreciate that she has some office hours in the Brookland Park Boulevard area; however, I have to ask... what is the point of office hours in the middle of the work day? Teachers can't attend... most parent's can't attend... so what is the point? To claim you are available and doing something? In my opinion, it is an odd choice to not have after business hours availability. 


WHY NOT: Joann Henry

Joann has a lot of experience in Richmond Public Schools as an educator and administrator. That said, in my opinion, she is another status quo candidate who is not going to press for change and has a self-serving agenda. In addition, her connections within the city raise questions for me about what she believes and how their agenda influences her. I think Joann does a lot of great work at The Dream Academy which is much needed in Richmond; however, her success and experience does not automatically mean she would be best suited to be a school board member. I think Joann could provide tremendous value to RPS but possibly in an administration, consulting, or non-profit role. 

 

FORUM LIFE

In the forums where I saw Joann speak, she had a condescending tone and constantly tried shoving her experience in your face. For example, at RVA Church Talk an audience member asked the question of why the candidates were qualified to hire and fire teachers. Joann jumped at the chance to answer by explaining how that’s not the job of a school board member. The way she delivered it, it sounded like she was talking down to the person who asked the question. Yes, she is correct about the role of the board; however, the way she answered questions and spoke to people does not portray her in my mind as the collaborative leader we need. There were a number of questions where her solution for RPS was to hire a good superintendent because that is his responsibility and he will fix it all (yes, she always said he). She cited the superintendent as her solution over and over and over. In fact, at the RVA Church Talk forum, she even said the superintendent is in charge; however, last I checked the board has supervisory authority over the superintendent and they are the superintendent's employer and manager. Another reason I feel like she is a status quo candidate is many of her answers would write off the other candidate's solutions as having been done before; however, the only solution she offered was the superintendent magic wand. In addition, at the Crusade forum, Henry blamed the principal not raising the concerns about George Mason Elementary sooner and that the administration failed to follow through. In her answer, not only does she not recognize the potential for improvements the Board should make in their process, but she actively blames principals/administration. This concerns me because if she perceives the administration/principals as the main issue, I do not think she will champion policies that would help teachers and the administration. Nor do I think a board member will be able to affect real change with a perspective of "blame the admin/teachers, the superintendent will fix it." 

 

SELF-SERVING

If I have to hear Joann Henry tout the Dream Academy again like a forum is an AKC dog show, it will be too soon. Her forum appearances felt like opportunities for her to pat herself on the back, brag about her own achievements, and raise awareness for her school. I believe she honestly wants to improve people's lives; however, I think as a school board member you can not be so self-serving with your own interests. 

 

CONNECTIONS

Joann was endorsed by the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Richmond Free Press. Joann is the director of the Dream Academy where her board is comprised some individuals affilitated with RCV and/or Richmond Free Press including Johnny Walker, Bernice Travers, and Jeremy Lazarus (profiles below). At the forums I attended, there was no transparency about these connections. With Johnny Walker moderating the RCV forum, it felt like there were questions crafted specifically for Joann to answer. In fact, it felt more like an opportunity for RCV to tout their chosen candidate instead of a real forum. This makes me question how things would be with her on the board. RCV and RFP both have a history of questioning the political status quo; however, when they are pushing a candidate so hard with a process that felt like they had made up their mind before it ever began, I question if they will hold our political leaders accountable if/when they agree with the decisions being made. 

  • Johnny Walker- Former 4th district city council candidate (2012 and 2016). He is currently chair of the Richmond Crusade for Voters research committee where he moderated the RCV Candidate forums, including the school board forum. 
  • Jeremy Lazarus-  Lazarus as been a reporter with The Richmond Free Press for over 20 years. In 1994, Lazarus won RRHA's Media Award. Jeremy Lazarus is the husband of Joann Henry, Director of the Dream Academy. 
  • Bernice Travers- Travers is currently the president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. As the President of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, Travers was part of getting the 2017 ballot measure to change the city's charter on the ballot that would force the Mayor to fund schools without an increase in taxes or fees or declare the task impossible. Travers was a panelist on the city's crime summit panel in 1994 where she advocated year round school from 7AM-7PM and try teenagers who commit adult crimes as adults.

WHY: Kenya Gibson

If you couldn't tell, I spent a lot of time researching each of the three candidates. Apparently, Kenya's high school yearbooks are available online in PDF form so we get to see a very robust picture of her life. I share these photos not only because who doesn't love embarrassing yearbook photos, but Kenya was super involved in high school. She was in drama club, student council, math club, and the substance use peer assistance program. In addition, she was voted most likely to succeed. To me, this tells a story of who Kenya has always been: someone who cares enough to be consistently involved. While I am sure Joann and Cindy have yearbooks with fun facts and club memberships, I did not have access to them and this was not a deciding factor in my decision to vote for Kenya. First of all, is Kenya the perfect candidate? No. Do I have concerns about Kenya? Yes. But out of the candidates we have, I feel like I can trust Kenya's ability and that she is the best candidate to represent my voice on the school board.

 

ADVOCACY

Kenya is an advocate of public education and has been involved with PTA and Support Our Schools (SOS). In addition, she was endorsed by the Richmond Education Association (REA). Throughout her campaign, she makes it clear that she will advocate for our educators. For example, in the education compact discussion Kenya wrote about the importance of bringing teachers to the table. I think that our teachers and administrators are a huge key to success of RPS and it is important that the school board members to have their support. 

But moderation is important. Kenya's relationship with SOS is invaluable; however, they are a teacher advocacy group and not necessarily a community advocacy group. While these are not mutually exclusive ideas, the goal of the organization is geared more toward teacher voices. That is why it is important for there to be more collaboration across diverse groups of advocates to encompass all voices. An example of collaboration was the press conference in June where RPS advocates, including Kenya, representing several different organizations called for the education compact to be delayed. 

 

TRANSPARENCY

As someone who sifts through government documents in their spare time, I need a candidate to understand transparency and what it looks like. Other candidates have platforms about transparency and policies they want to push that increase transparency; however, I don't believe it should require policies for our elected officials to proactively answer to their constituents. To me, it is important to have an individual on the board who understands policies, is willing to ask questions, and is willing to respond publicly. An example of transparency recently was with the Dallas Dance contract. Even if there is no law that requires the school board to review/discuss/address an action taken, they should know the people they represent well enough to see the concerns and address them up front instead of weeks after the fact. Proactive instead of reactive communication is a key element of transparency in my opinion. 

 

REPRESENTING THE 3RD AND ALL OF RPS

The 3rd District has a lot of neighborhoods with radically different needs. It was clear to me when listening to Joann answer questions at forums that she thinks she knows better than everyone else based on her experience. Between that and her condescending tone, I do not think Joann will honestly listen to constituents or consider innovative ideas. While Cindy may listen to 3rd district residents, I question how many other people she is also listening to that are not inside the 3rd district. Many of Cindy's supporters come from other districts and the political realm. While a board member represents all RPS students, they should have a deep connection and interest in their own district. Out of the candidates, I believe Kenya has the ability to listen to all of the 3rd district community and understand everyone's needs before making a decision.